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Japanese designer Yuko Yamaguchi is predicting a bright future for the fashionable feline that can be seen on cakes and even guitars.
Japanese designer Yuko Yamaguchi is predicting a bright future for the fashionable feline that can be seen on cakes and even guitars. AFP

Will life begin at 40 for Kitty?

The cute cat has lost none of her appeal with young consumers. But the big question now is can she see off a new wave of digital rivals

It has been an iconic character since the late 20th century, but can Japan’s cutest cat survive the digital age? Now 40 years old, the forever young Hello Kitty is facing tough competition from the new kids on the block.

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Since designer Yuko Yamaguchi became involved in the fashionable feline, the Hello Kitty brand has been turned into handbags and clothes, cakes and guitars, and even large air balloons. But maybe, the cat’s whiskers are starting to grey at the edges?

Yamaguchi doesn’t think so. Speaking on the sidelines of the Hong Kong Book Fair, she took the concept of life imitating art to another level, wearing a Kitty-style strawberry dress with dyed auburn hair piled into two buns topped with a red ribbon – the cat’s signature accessory.

As Kitty enters her fifth decade, she faces increasing competition from more cutting-edge cartoons such as Brown and Cony, the bear and rabbit mascots of Tokyo-based messaging app LINE, which has taken Asia by storm in recent months. But Yamaguchi insisted Kitty would cope with growing older in a digital age.

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“There are new cartoon characters that are coming out daily . . . [but] I think Hello Kitty is the only one that can adapt to the changes in the world,” she said. The moon-faced, mouthless white cat first appeared in 1974 on a coin purse in Japan. She has since built up a worldwide fanbase, and has been one of the country’s star exports.

Her image is licensed by Japanese company Sanrio, which makes more than $5 billion in retail sales each year. Hello Kitty is its flagship brand, and the biggest earner.

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Naturally, Yamaguchi has played a major role in the billionaire cat’s success. At the Hong Kong fair earlier this month, the head designer of Hello Kitty since 1980 was quick to promote herself as the character’s best friend. “She is very motivated and open and wants to face the future,” she said of the character. There are plenty of detractors of Hello Kitty’s sweetness – entire blogs are dedicated to tearing down the cute icon, with online spoofs depicting her like a horror movie character.

But Yamaguchi insists her appeal can endure. “There are already three generations of fans that like Hello Kitty, so I hope that there will be more fans like that in the future, like people in a family loving Hello Kitty together,” she said.

The main Hello Kitty 40th birthday celebrations will take place later this year, including the first fan convention, hosted in Los Angeles at the end of October.

For many, Hello Kitty is still the top cat in the land of kitsch.

Compiled from AFP

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THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A FASHION ICON
♥ Hello Kitty was born in London in 1974.
♥ Sanrio, the Japanese company, asked designer Ikuko Shimizu to create a cartoon character for a plastic purse aimed at preteen girls.
♥ Shimizu came up with a white cat wearing a red bow and blue overalls.
♥ The Sanrio media team then created a whole new world for the cartoon character. Hello Kitty lived in London, which appealled to young Japanese customers in the 1970s.
♥ By the 1990s, Hello Kitty was probably the biggest cartoon star in the world – only rivalled by Mickey Mouse.
♥ As Kitty mania swept the globe, research from feminist scholars showed that Hello Kitty’s cute looks and her lack of a mouth perpetuated the submissive female preteen image.
♥ By now, Hello Kitty's market had broadened to include adult consumers. Her image could be found on a variety of products, ranging from school supplies to fashion accessories and high-end products.
♥ Hello Kitty even hit television screens through a series aimed at children.
♥ She is also the main character at two of Japan’s biggest theme parks, Harmonyland and Sanrio Puroland.

Compiled by post weekend


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